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Hamouda and other Muslims across the Middle East point out that the eruption of rage over the cartoons coincided with the electoral success of religious parties in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as the escalating confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Those developments have emboldened forces in the region who benefit from seeing the frustration felt by Muslims about their lives channeled into hostility toward the West, forces that range from radical clerics to secular Arab autocrats. In that sense, the cartoon uproar may have a lot less to do with religion or culture than with politics. "Arabs should have responded in a cooler way," says Mourad Gharib, 42, a journalist in Cairo. "But it's as though we're standing on a hot piece of metal. Any slight change in temperature can affect Arab society."
For the U.S. and its Western allies, that should serve as an admonishment. The Bush Administration's promotion of democracy in the Arab world since Sept. 11 has helped rouse stirrings of participatory democracy throughout the region; even a society as closed as Saudi Arabia's has held local elections for the first time. But for most Muslims, any credit owed to the U.S. for such advances is outweighed by simmering resentment over the war in Iraq and the lack of progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the triumph of Hamas in last month's Palestinian elections showed, holding free elections in such conditions runs a high risk of rewarding fundamentalist groups that have little interest in tamping down anti-Western attitudes. The popularity of Islamists may be discomfiting to the West, but it increasingly seems to be the bargain required for implanting democracy in the Islamic world. Says Mohammed Abdel Koddus, a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: "People are looking for alternatives, and the only alternative they see is Islam."
So what can the U.S. do? Aides to Bush say the unrest roiling the Muslim world hasn't shaken his faith that democracy helps relieve extremism in the long run, because the prosaic work of governing tends to make ideological politicians more pragmatic. "Elections are just the start in his view," says a senior Administration official. It's encouraging, U.S. officials say, that powerful Muslim figures--including Iraq's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, and even some leaders of Hamas--have tried to quell the unrest over the Danish cartoons out of fear of a collapse in law and order. But even if that tames the passions unleashed over the past month, there's every reason to expect the voices of Muslim discontent to grow more assertive, not less. "Before this, people believed that Muslims were sleeping and would never wake up," says Yusef Hamdan, 23, a radio engineer in the Gaza Strip. "But the cartoons prove you can provoke the Muslim nation." Having lit the fuse of liberty in the Arab world, the U.S. has little choice now but to watch it burn.